Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq
Thousands of Iraqi women and children with perceived ties to IS have been condemned for crimes they did not commit.
They are branded as "IS families". Many are denied access to food, water and health care. They are routinely blocked from obtaining new or replacement identity cards and other civil documents. This often means that these women cannot move freely, work, or collect family pensions, and that their children cannot attend school. They face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, whether due to the fact that they do not have the proper documentation or that camp authorities block them from leaving, placing them in de facto detention. These women have endured sexual harassment and sexual violence including rape. Many of them have also been subjected to sexual exploitation.
Amnesty International has researched the situation of women and children with perceived IS ties and concludes that they have been subjected to serious human rights violations and collective punishment. "Victory" over IS in Iraq cannot be understood in only military terms. To put an end to the cycles of mistreatment, marginalization and resulting communal violence and abuses, the Iraqi government and international community must commit - in both words and action - to upholding and protecting the human rights of all Iraqis.
Because they consider me the same as an IS fighter, they will rape me and return me back. They want to show everyone what they can do to me.
What makes a family an "IS family"?
Iraqi civilians, authorities from IDP camps, and local and international humanitarian workers said a family will be perceived and treated as an "IS family" if:
- They have a relative - however distant - who was a member of IS. This relative does not have to have been a fighter or commander - being an administrative employee, driver or cook is sufficient. Not only is this punishment for a crime the women did not commit, many women emphasized the fact that they had no choice but to go along with their husband’s decision to join IS.
- If the family lived in a particular neighbourhood or area that was a stronghold of support for IS; or if the family lived in an area that was controlled by IS and then fled that area at a late stage in the hostilities. Amnesty International has extensively documented how IS fighters forcibly moved civilians into zones of conflict to be used as human shields as they lost ground to Iraqi forces. IS fighters then prevented civilians from fleeing and summarily executed those who attempted to flee and hanged their bodies in public areas as a warning to anyone contemplating escape.
When we got to the transit camp, the [Popular Mobilization Units] took a lot of men… They brought masked informers to point to the men. Whoever he pointed to was dragged away. Men were shaking even if they had nothing to hide.
- If the family belongs to a tribe of which the majority supported IS;
- If the wife’s husband or son was arrested as he fled IS-held territory or after he arrived at a given IDP camp. Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have repeatedly raised serious concerns with the flawed screening process and subsequent arbitrary arrests that have taken place since the fight against IS began. Thousands of men and boys have been forcibly disappeared by Iraqi and Kurdish forces since 2014.
Every night, I go to bed afraid. Every morning I wake up still afraid of what might happen the next day.
What They Do to Families with Perceived Ties to IS
Women and children with perceived ties to IS who live in IDP camps in Iraq have been subjected to a series of serious human rights violations and collective punishment. These violations have been primarily carried out by armed actors present in the camps, who use their positions of authority to take advantage of these women’s poverty and isolation.
As families fled IS-held territory in Mosul and its surrounding areas, thousands of men and boys were separated from their families and arbitrarily arrested. While some IS fighters and commanders were captured in these arrests, many others were arrested for having non-combat roles with IS, such as being cooks or drivers, for simply having names that were similar to men listed in computer databases, for fleeing from certain areas or neighbourhoods or for being related to IS fighters. Many were extrajudicially executed. Those who survived have been detained in a vast network of official and underground detention centres and forced to endure torture and horrific conditions. Almost all of these men and boys have been forcibly disappeared – cut off from the outside world and their families, who are denied any information about their fate. This wave of "disappearances", in combination with the fact that thousands of men were killed or went missing during the conflict, means that thousands of female-headed families with a perceived affiliation to IS are now struggling for survival in Iraq.
These women and children are denied access to food, water and health care and blocked form obtaining the civil documents they need to work and move freely. Many are held in de facto detention. Women are subjected to sexual violence, including rape and sexual exploitation. These violations are carried out by armed actors operating in the camps, camp authorities and others. Many women and children with perceived ties to IS are trapped in the camps, as they are prevented from returning home. Those responsible include tribal and local authorities, Iraqi forces including the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), other government-aligned militias and community leaders. Those who have managed to return to their homes have been subjected to attacks, evictions, arrests and other abuses. This has led to these women and children being displaced again into the camps. Some women told Amnesty International that the abuses they are enduring and the lack of options for the future had led them to consider suicide.
Denied access to food and water
Female-headed families with perceived ties to IS reported being denied access to food, water, and health care in IDP camps.
Blocked from obtaining identity cards
Routinely blocked from obtaining new or replacement identity cards and other civil documents.
Restrictions on freedom of movement
These families face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. Many are either held in de facto detention in the camps or prevented by camp authorities from leaving.
In the camps, they face regular verbal harassment, including sexual harassment and intimidation by armed actors, camp authorities and other camp residents.
They are also subjected to sexual violence, including rape and widespread sexual exploitation.
Blocks on returns
Many families are trapped in the camps because they have been prevented from returning to their areas and villages by tribal and local authorities, Iraqi forces including the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), government-aligned militias and community members.
Amnesty International calls on the Iraqi authorities to:
- End the collective punishment of families with perceived ties to IS
- Ensure that these women and children are provided equal access to humanitarian aid, health care, and civil documents
- Allow these families to move freely inside and outside of the camps - and to return home without fear of intimidation, arrest or attacks
- Take action against the sexual violence, rape, and sexual exploitation of these women, starting with holding all perpetrators accountable and preventing armed actors from entering IDP camps
Iraq is at a turning point that has been marked by the Iraqi authorities’ narrative of “Victory over IS".
Yet “victory” over IS in Iraq cannot be understood in only military terms. To put an end to the cycles of mistreatment, marginalization and resulting communal violence and abuses in Iraq, the Iraqi government and international community must commit - in both words and action - to upholding and protecting the rights of all Iraqis without discrimination. Nothing is more essential to foster the conditions for national reconciliation and just and sustainable peace in Iraq.